Looked at objectively, Shallow Slumber is a bit of a shambles. Nevertheless, playwright Chris Lee handles his gut-wrenching subject, that of child abuse, with such rawness and empathy that the play holds you rapt in spite of clunking flaws. With a strict dramaturgical going-over, it could be shatteringly good.
Inspired by the case of Baby P, Lee works backwards in time, piecing together two disintegrated lives to the explosive moment that blew them apart. Three days out of prison, Dawn (Amy Cudden) turns up unannounced on the doorstep of her former social worker. As Moira, stood in her dressing gown, Alexandra Gilbreath freezes in shock. Her face gives nothing away.
Nor, at this point, does their conversation; Lee has them talk cryptically – unnaturally so – about their shared history, pointedly keeping secrets from us to allow his structure to work. The trouble is that the benefits of hindsight aren’t intricate enough. Lee takes us backwards not to illuminate the past, as in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, but simply because he’s building to a climatic scene that happens to be chronologically earlier. Besides his pained efforts to withhold the nature of Dawn’s crime is undermined by the openness with which the production has marketed itself.
Shallow Slumber subsequently rewinds through Dawn’s stint in prison and prior judicial procedures, until it reaches the fraught confession that led her there. Here, Lee unleashes everything. Dawn’s admission leaves images of stinging cruelty: experimental punches, cigarette-tips burning holes in baby-soft skin, a kettleful of water that finally scalds the life out of her child. The pain reverberates into the auditorium in collective gasps.
Nevertheless, Shallow Slumber is no mere in-yer-face exercise. Beneath it are nuanced social points about class and the co-dependence of the care-system and its clients. Not only is Dawn aware of the injustice behind the assumption that she needs a social worker, deep down she knows that, in her case, it’s a fair one. For all that she might not have done, Dawn needs Moira.
Yet Moira needs Dawn just as much, if not more; a point well-made by Georgia Lowe’s design of a corridor with two ends that reflect one another. Each becomes more fully human through the other. Their relationship is one of mutual gratification; of submission and domination. Moira has to visit Dawn in prison. When she gets up to leave, Dawn slams a knife into her hand. Even in the first scene, with Dawn begging for help, Moira’s gestures push her away as if resisting the temptation of an addiction overcome. Fixing things is Moira’s fix; it’s how she feels secure and superior in her own middle-class, comparatively comfortable existence.
Lee’s writing falls down when it comes to credibility. Though the characters and their relationship are rounded and three-dimensional, their language and actions are often incongruous. Dawn is certainly too eloquent, prone to poetic flourishes that jar, but both behave irrationally. They give up incriminating information too readily and willingly splurge backstories, some of which are too bloated, all suicides and murder. In this way, Lee neglects situation and his characters are self-consciously creatures of the stage; they would work much better in direct address.
Though director Mary Nighy cannot get around these problems, she has nonetheless drawn two stunning performances from Gilbreath and Cudden. Cudden’s Dawn is an open wound, emotions and inner-conflict always babbling to the surface and threatening to drown her. Gilbreath, on the other hand, is externally unflinching. She presents us the blankest of blank canvases, embracing the ambiguous mysteries of the text by forcing us to do the work. Her transformations are fantastic and she can go from fresh to drained in an instant. Hers is a remarkable performance that hints at hidden depths and keeps Shallow Slumber on track throughout.